On September 16, 1963, the day after a bomb planted by white supremacists at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, murdered four black children—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—a white lawyer named Charles Morgan Jr. spoke to a segregated white audience at the city’s Young Men’s Business Club. “Who did it?” he asked. “Who threw that bomb? Was it a negro or a white? The answer should be, ‘We all did it.’ Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and a decade ago. We all did it” (17). With that, Jemar Tisby opens his historical survey of Christianity and race in America.
The content of The Color of Compromise is well known in academic and activist circles. Yet its argument is innovative in how it deploys culturally evangelical language and tropes to make the history of structural racism legible to a popular audience. As our panelists from academic, ministerial, and activist backgrounds attest, Tisby’s approach merits our careful and appreciatively critical attention.
Tisby is uniquely positioned to work at the intersection of popular, scholarly, and church worlds. After a stint as a middle school principal in Mississippi, Tisby cofounded The Witness: A Black Christian Collective and pursued a PhD in history at the University of Mississippi, where he is a doctoral candidate. He also launched Pass the Mic, a podcast featuring conversations on race with an array of religious leaders and activists.
Throughout his career Tisby has reached out to white evangelical Christians, and The Color of Compromise is no exception. Tisby deploys the language of cultural evangelicalism to trace the history of racism pervading American society. This is no small feat, as evangelical lingo has historically proven more adept at condoning than at exposing structural racism. In Tisby’s hands, however, this language is put to bracingly effective diagnostic use. He wagers that despite the ways that white America has weaponized Christianity for white supremacist ends, the Christian gospel remains anti-racist at its core. In this respect he writes from a place of deep hope for the American church.
Our panelists respond to this hope in a variety of ways. Korie Little-Edwards questions whether white Christianity can be extricated from white supremacy. She observes, “If white evangelicals today actively opposed and divested from all vestiges of white supremacy and white hegemony as well as their whiteness, racial inequality and injustice could not persist.” Yet this would “challenge not only their racial identity and way of life but I dare say their religious identity as well.” This prompts her to ask, “Is there such a thing as white Christianity in America without white supremacy?”
Nancy Bedford addresses the theology underwriting white American racism. She argues that the white Christian complicity in racism that Tisby exposes is rooted in a heretical Christology that preaches the full divinity of Christ without acknowledging his full humanity as the “Brown or Black Jesus of Nazareth confessed as the Christ.” Consequently, white Christianity preaches a “docetic white Jesus of white racism” who “cannot be called upon to defend those who are in the crosshairs of anti-Blackness.” She challenges us to consider, “What theological moves are needed in order for the call to transformation by Jesus of Nazareth to be heard in their midst?”
Amaryah Armstrong interrogates whether the language of compromise and its corresponding call to courageous Christianity is capable of precipitating the kind of change that Tisby seeks. “Compromise” suggests that the offending party was once oriented correctly. This obscures the fact that white American Christianity was anti-black from the start. Nor is black resilience in the face of racism rooted in Christianity per se. Rather, it is the product of the courage of black individuals and communities who, in certain cases, chose to use “Christian materials” to give expression to that courage. Armstrong closes by challenging black evangelicalism to narrate American Christian history without invoking the story of compromise.
Shane Claiborne and Liz Theoharis write as white Christian activists exploring the practical implications of Tisby’s argument. Claiborne emphasizes the importance of breaking down the silos that incubate and perpetuate racism. He describes his own experience in an eastern Tennessee high school festooned with confederate flag imagery. He gained perspective on how deeply problematic those signifiers were by interacting with people who neither looked nor thought like he did. “Sometimes,” Claiborne writes, “our problem is not a compassion problem but a relationship problem, a geography problem, a proximity problem.” Breaking down the silos has been a mainstay of his activism, whether through the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, participation in Truth and Reconciliation forums, or recruiting local government officials to do social justice work.
Liz Theoharis draws on her experience as co-chair for The Poor People’s Campaign to describe, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King (and the title of Tisby’s closing chapter), “The Fierce Urgency of Now.” A staggering number of American residents—disproportionately people of color—suffer from poverty and lack access to basic goods such as health care and clean water. As the wealthiest nation on earth, America has the resources to address these effects of systemic racism. White Christians resist these calls to change because they continue to accept what Theoharis describes as the “lie of scarcity and compromise” that keeps racist structures in place. But change we must—and white Christians can join in by rejecting the lie of compromise for an expansive and inclusive “revolution of values” that centers the poor and the marginalized.
There are no perfect formulas for effective argument. Debates over how and when to engage race issues will, and must, continue. Tisby challenges us to broaden our sense of who can engage productively on these issues, and our panelists respond to this challenge with insight and care. May we all come away invigorated for the work ahead.